Youngstown board members sound off on supt., each other



“Fractured” and “strained” are some of the adjectives city school board members used to describe their relationships with one another and with Superintendent Connie Hathorn — but so are “cordial” and “professional.”

The board last week completed and released Hathorn’s annual evaluation, giving him a 5 on a scale of 1 to 9. Last year, he earned a 7.

The evaluation was signed by board President Richard Atkinson and members Marcia Haire-Ellis, Andrea Mahone and Brenda Kimble while members Lock P. Beachum Sr., Michael Murphy and Rachel Hanni didn’t sign it.

The three who didn’t sign said they believed Hathorn deserved higher marks.

The four who did said the score was based largely on the district’s latest state report card, which designated the district in academic watch for a second year.

District and state officials announced last week that sample tests indicate that because of the work done so far this year, the district is expected to improve on next year’s report card. The state next year is changing the way it calculates report cards, but under the current system state and local officials believe the district would receive a continuous-improvement designation.

Still, Mahone, Haire-Ellis and Kimble said they’ve asked Hathorn to do specific things — launch a marketing and recruitment plan to attract students to the district, begin a leadership academy to prepare personnel within the system to step into principal positions if they open mid-year — and he hasn’t followed through.

Last year, the district saw more than 2,500 students and $21 million go to charter and community schools.

In response, Hathorn now is sending letters to parents of students attending charter schools and parents of students attending neighboring districts through open enrollment. In them, he touts what the city district has to offer. These include two free meals per day, participation in sports and other after-school activities and new programs planned as part of his restructuring plan next school year: specialty courses in Spanish, engineering/math, visual arts, performing arts,

investigative science and creative communications.

Kimble and Haire-Ellis both believe Hathorn needs to be more visible in the community by attending block- watch meetings and gatherings of civic organizations and church groups.

Haire-Ellis characterized her relationship with Hathorn as “strained” and based it on “communications,” but she declined to elaborate.

“He has a hard time taking criticism,” Mahone said.

She referred to a meeting several months ago when she told Hathorn that board members were his boss.

“He said, ‘I don’t have a boss,’” Mahone said.

She also said Hathorn doesn’t like to be told what to do, Mahone said.

Kimble said the superintendent doesn’t respect the board, and Haire-Ellis said Hathorn needs to understand that he serves at the pleasure of the school board.

Atkinson said everyone’s perception is different.

“I’ve not had that experience with him,” he said

Murphy said Kimble, Haire-Ellis and Mahone want to get involved in school personnel issues that they shouldn’t be involved in.

They question the superintendent about anybody they don’t like, he said.

“They want to run the system and not let him run it,” Murphy said.

Hanni said that when Hathorn was interviewed for the job, he talked about working as a team and he’s kept to that since being hired.

“I think it’s counterproductive to want everyone working as a team and then to say, ‘I’m your boss,’” she said.

Hathorn declined to comment. “It’s over,” he said of the

recent back-and-forth with the board about the evaluation.

Adrienne O’Neill, Youngstown Schools Academic Distress Commission chairwoman, believes the conflicts stem from a September report from the Harwood Institute, reported in The

Vindicator, which found that the community has more trust in Hathorn than in the school board.

Hathorn has the backing of O’Neill. In a Feb. 26 email to fellow commission members and city schools administrators, she wrote:

“ ... if the board does not act to keep Connie in place, I will ask you [commission members] to act to appoint an academic monitor. Then the board of education will lose all control — not only will the finances be in our hands, but the academics will also. I have seen gains, so I have been reluctant to appoint such a person because in my view that would undermine Connie. So far, Connie has been able to say that we are requiring him to do ‘X,’ and things move along.”

Rather than being stuck in a pattern of blame, all of the parties need to move forward, she said last week.

“I think what we need to do is look at this [Academic Recovery] Plan and look at the goals that have to be accomplished and keep to the plan and keep to improving student achievement,” O’Neill said. “Everyone should be talking about the district as a place where great student achievement can happen

instead of talking about who’s to blame for the past and celebrating failure.”

Those representing the school district should be touting the positive programs in the city schools.

“There’s no celebration of the programs at all,” the chairwoman said. “There’s lots of talk about other things, and I’d like it to stop.”

She said she’s not interested in talking about the superintendent’s performance or the school board’s performance.

And she had this message for both sides: “Cut it out.”

Mahone, Haire-Ellis and Kimble also take issue with what they say is a lack of information from the superintendent about the loss last year of $1.8 million in federal School Improvement Grant money. Haire-Ellis said they learned some information from the superintendent’s staff, but learned more from an article in The Vindicator.

Hanni said the board got a report of the SIG funding from Doug Hiscox, deputy superintendent, as soon as he returned from a Columbus meeting about the issue. Hiscox

gave the information that he had and promised more at what was to be the board’s next meeting.

Haire-Ellis said Hathorn’s latest district restructuring plan, which involves closing some schools and repurposing others, would have been received better had he involved community stakeholders in developing it. She also questions if the plan is research-based and if similar plans have been successful in districts with similar demographics to Youngstown.

Such plans and programs should include goals and

objective matrixes to determine if they are successful, she said.

Kimble also complained that Hathorn acts more like a CEO of a corporation than as a superintendent of schools.

Mahone last week equated the three members’ not signing the evaluation to a “tantrum.” Their scores were figured into the overall evaluation.

Hanni, Beachum and

Murphy took offense to that characterization.

“I am a former principal and professional educator who has evaluated hundreds of teachers and administrators,” said Beachum, a retired city school principal. “I know what variables to review and how much weight should be given to each item. Subjectivity

and personal animosity have no place in the judgment of an individual’s final outcome.”

He didn’t sign the document because he didn’t agree with the content and believes it should include more specificity. The evaluation should have included more information about what the board wants to see improved as well as what areas the board believes Hathorn is performing well in. Both Hanni and Murphy acknowledge that their scores were calculated as part of the overall total, but Hanni said her overall score was an eight and Murphy said his was an 8.5.

Both said they signed and dated their individual evaluation forms and wanted them included as part of the public document, but they instead were shredded by Atkinson along with those of the other individual board members.

Murphy contends that some other board members scored Hathorn with 1s in each category of the evaluation.

During an executive session last month where board members were working on Hathorn’s evaluation, yelling could be heard from behind the closed door. One member emerged from the back room and called another member “dumb.”

Murphy, however, characterized the board members’ relationship as “professional.”

Kimble described the relationship among board members as “sometimes it’s cordial, but mostly it’s fractured.”

She believes, however, that everyone can come together and work to boost student achievement and improve the school district.

The other members agree.

Kimble said disagreement is expected when you have seven people sitting on any board.

Atkinson said people have to talk to one another in the way that they want to be spoken to. He wouldn’t elaborate.

He said board members may organize a retreat to try to work out some problems and get to know each other as people.

Disagreements shouldn’t keep the district from moving forward, Atkinson said.

“My goal is to have the best school system we can have,” Atkinson said. “Everyone has to stay focused on that. I think that’s possible.”

Beachum agreed.

“Among the seven of us, we’re all in agreement with one thing: In order for the Youngstown City Schools to remain a viable school system,”

we have to move it out of academic watch, past continuous improvement and to an excellent school district,” he said.

Mahone said she wants the schools to improve too.

“I love the Youngstown City Schools, but for it to run smoothly, we have to all sit down at the table and work together,” she said.

She’s not sure that can happen if relationships have been too damaged. “It will be up to the

leadership to bring everyone together and put everyone on one accord,” Mahone said.

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